Ho Chunk Nation of Wisconsin fights for Rights of Nature, USA

In September 2016 , the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin was the first tribal nation in the United States to advance an amendment to their tribal constitution to recognize the rights of nature.


The Ho-Chunk are native to the present-day states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and parts of Iowa and Illinois. The two separate federally recognized tribal governments are the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.  This case specifically documents the struggle for recognizing rights of nature of the Ho Chunk Nation of Wisconsin which has a population of around 10,000 to 12,000.

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Basic Data
NameHo Chunk Nation of Wisconsin fights for Rights of Nature, USA
CountryUnited States of America
ProvinceWisconsin, Minnesota, and parts of Iowa and Illinois
SiteBlack River Falls, Wisconsin
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Land acquisition conflicts
Building materials extraction (quarries, sand, gravel)
Shale gas fracking
Oil and gas exploration and extraction
Intensive food production (monoculture and livestock)
Specific CommoditiesLand
Sand, gravel
Biological resources
Ecosystem Services
Natural Gas
Crude oil
Frac sand
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsThe Ho-Chunk tribe has been severely affected by the unregulated effects of frac sand mining, Bakken oil transport, high capacity wells and industrial agriculture to name a few. Some examples are given below:

In 2010, a new environmental concern of hydraulic fracking to extract gas and oil in the massive mining of sand frac emerged in Ho Chunk territory. Though, fracking did not directly affect Wisconsin, but it became the number one produce of frac sand. In 3 years, 84 sand frac mines were started, shipping 130,000 tons of sand a day. The mining of silica sand created health concerns about silica dust, heavy traffic rush, gashes left in the land, and contamination of surface and groundwater.

Near Tomah, sacred ceremony grounds are now surrounded by four frac sand mines which interrupts ancient cultural practices with blowing silica dust,twenty four hour light pollution and truck traffic essentially turning the area into an industrial zone.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which has authorized the destruction of 26 acres of wetlands with 60 permits for industrial sand operations since 2008, according to a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report.

In 1988, the Ho-Chunk Nation filed a timely claim for transfer of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant (BAAP), which was to be declared surplus under federal regulations. As part of their former traditional territory, the property holds historical, archeological, sacred and cultural resources important to their people. It is a 1500-acre parcel in Sauk County, Wisconsin. In 1998 the Secretary of the Interior had issued a letter to claim the land on behalf of the Ho-Chunk but, in 2011, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) refused to accept the property. It said it was unwilling to spend monies to conduct the environmental assessment.

The Ho-Chunk are continuing to pursue the case, as they note that, between 1998 and 2011, the Army spent millions of dollars in environmental assessment and cleanup to prepare the property for transfer. In 2012 the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) passed a resolution in support of the Ho-Chunk and encouraging the BIA as a policy matter to accept surplus lands as trust lands on behalf of tribes.

Please note that the conflict start date is listed as 1800 in reference to the forced relocations of the Ho Chunk throughout the 19th century.
Project Area (in hectares)1,862.5
Level of Investment (in USD)Unclear due to many projects, industries, formal and informal activities
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population10,000-12,000
Start Date09/2016
Company Names or State EnterprisesBadger Army Ammunition Plant (BAAP) from United States of America
Relevant government actorsWisconsin Department of Natural Resources; Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersCommunity Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF); Ho Chunk Nation of Wisconsin; Ho-Chunk General Council; Viterbo University
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)LOW (some local organising)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingFarmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Landless peasants
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of MobilizationCreation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Fires, Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Oil spills, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Mine tailing spills
Health ImpactsVisible: Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Other Health impacts
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusUnknown
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCourt decision (undecided)
Under negotiation
Do you consider this as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.This is an amendment of law for the tribal constitution. It would establish specific rights of nature, however does not state that nature is a legal person. The amendment though supported by majority in the tribal government has not yet been passed. In spite of passing the law how would it help in making decisions pro-nature, i.e. implementation of the law is still not clear.

In spite of these difficulties, the fact that this case has set an example for other communities and governments is an achievement.
Sources and Materials

Unlikely Alliances: Native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands


Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin General Council Votes to Add “Rights of Nature” to Tribal Constitution
[click to view]

Ho-Chunk Nation adds “Rights of Nature” to their constitution
[click to view]

Industrial sand project would destroy pristine wetlands
[click to view]

The Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution That Could Save the World
[click to view]

On the Rights of Nature
[click to view]

Other Documents

Ho Chunk Nation Official Seal
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorRadhika Mulay, Kalpavriksh
Last update25/03/2019